Mtn. View panel: To house the "missing middle" allow smaller units, less parking

Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Los Altos resident Sue Russell, second from left, explores the MicroPAD unit hauled to downtown Mountain View as an example of super-compact housing.

New housing developments have been rising in Mountain View at a rapid rate, but the city still faces an essential Silicon Valley conundrum: With going rates starting at nearly $3,000 a month for a new studio apartment unit and climbing from there, the “market rate” for new housing remains far above what is affordable – by any definition – for middle-class earners.

Additions to the local housing market typically take one of two forms: either high-end projects able to command “luxury” prices or subsidized affordable housing projects earmarked for specific tenants. New housing includes little – arguably, nothing – accessible to average middle-income earners.

The city of Mountain View hosted a panel attended by the majority of the city council May 16 addressing how and why housing policy discourages development for the “missing middle.”

“What we have is basically a standoff,” said Rick Jacobus, a panelist who heads the housing consultancy firm Street Level Advisors.

He noted that it is understandable few residents are confident their city can build, or subsidize, its way out of a housing crisis – but a middle-focused approach does offer some solutions.

“Not all supply is equal,” Jacobus said.

If cities gave developers more opportunity and incentive to build modest – not subsidized – housing, the market would expand more effectively from the middle. Even zoning code that does not explicitly encourage only luxury units can, in markets such as Los Altos or Mountain View, ultimately have that effect to an overwhelming degree.

More units, modest footprints

Daniel Parolek of the urban planning firm Opticos Design said he avoids “scary” terms such as “density,” “upzoning” and “multifamily” when describing the housing scale that can encourage middle-income accessibility.

He described “house-scale buildings that happen to have multiple units in them” – the clusters of duplexes or fourplexes familiar from the postwar years of America’s middle-class boom. Very few have been built since then in the United States, but Parolek showed images of a stacked duplex that looked like a Craftsman-style house, and a fourplex reminiscent of a brick colonial.

Small units, with limited on-site parking, are financially feasible for developers if a city updates its rules to “level the playing field for smaller units,” Parolek said. By capping the numbers of units allowed in a given lot, cities provide developers with an incentive to build big, creating, for instance, two more luxurious houses rather than two duplexes with four total units.

Pitching a change to planning maps requires convincing local voters that “house-scale” rezoning isn’t all bad.

“A lot of building code isn’t about the people who will live in the building, but protecting their neighbors,” Jacobus noted.

As long as the decision-making scale tips in that direction, zoning changes that include more families in less space make for a hard sell with those who prefer the status quo.

“We need to renegotiate that social contract,” Jacobus said, noting that local voters might never agree.

State-level development code changes often have been the only way to revise policy in favor of including more families in less space.

Swallowing a bitter parking pill

Longtime Los Altos housing advocate Sue Russell, who attended the panel, said she didn’t think that just creating smaller units would truly help the missing middle in markets like Los Altos or Mountain View, given the extremity of the local housing market.

Other aspects of Parolek’s pitch did ring true.

“I think perhaps the point that parking drives everything is true in Los Altos,” Russell said, noting that she believes the argument – echoed by all of the panelists – that local and national data do reflect a trend of decreasing car use, particularly in urban areas. “Unbundling parking so that you have to pay more for your unit if you want car(s) encourages many people to give up a car. Los Altos typically reduces parking only when it’s forced to by a developer using State Density Bonus Law.”

“You can’t be for affordable housing and high parking requirements,” Parolek said, explaining that lowering parking requirements lowers a developer’s project costs.

He isn’t talking about discretionary luxury projects, but the more barebones developments that are considered unbuildable if their profitability threshold falls too low.

In most markets, one off-street parking space per unit is considered the maximum that allows for profitability in more modest projects, a fact reflected in Mountain View’s approval of a 116-unit “affordable” housing project on its southern border with Sunnyvale with 1.75 parking spaces allocated per unit – even for apartments as large as three bedrooms.

That project, which includes a bike locker for every unit as well as an on-site bike shop, reflects increasing developer interest in pitching urban alternatives to car-focused design. Patrick Kennedy, the Bay Area developer whose firm Panoramic Interests gained fame for building San Francisco’s first micro-units, said he has seen “imaginative” approaches to resolving parking.

“Provide alternatives for people and just see who moves in,” Kennedy said, citing a project he built that required tenants to opt out of an on-street parking permit program – effectively banning their overflow onto nearby streets – and urban developments where young people and downsizing retirees prioritized walkability and proximity to transit over access to an assigned space.

Going micro

Kennedy builds dense, mixed-use, mixed-income projects in San Francisco and Berkeley. He brought an example of a MicroPAD by trailer to the event in Mountain View, a new wrinkle in the trend he pioneered via the first high-rise micro-apartment building in the United States.

Kennedy targets urban residents who haven’t yet formed multigenerational families and who often commute without a car. He framed the new, super-compact units as a software and hardware update for the building industry – with modular designs and a radically updated construction process.

The most extreme example of this, a 160-square-foot studio – built as modular two-unit rec- tangles – is fabricated in a central facility, trucked or shipped to a job site, and stacked in place for final finishes, plumbing and wiring.

In the United Kingdom, major hotel chains such as Holiday Inn and Courtyard Marriott have been using this approach for hotel rooms, while in San Francisco, Panoramic Interests built two student and intern housing developments with similar-scale units.

The MicroPAD on display – while definitely larger than a standard prison cell – was so extremely small as to require a tremendous focus on design for livability.

Kennedy cited high ceilings, great windows and ventilation and excellent internet service as the three quality-of-life requirements necessary for comfort. The studio unit included a daybed with storage; a kitchen with refrigerator, sink, cooktop and microwave; a shower and recessed sink over a toilet; a micro closet and broom closet; a desk with chair and shelves; and huge windows.

Kennedy’s micro-apartment studios in San Francisco, which are notably larger at 282 square feet, rent for $2,980 per month.

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